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Paulanne Simmons

Morality on Trial

"Beautiful Child"
Directed by Terry Kinney
Vineyard Theatre
108 East 15th Street
Tues.-Fri. at 8 p.m. Sat. at 3 and 8 p.m. Sun. at 3 p.m.
$50; Box Office (212) 353-0303

Opened Feb. 24, plays through March 28
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Feb. 26, 2004

After Isaac (Steven Pasquale) comes home to tell his parents his awful secret, his father, Harry (George Grizzard), asks, "What was missing? What happened? What didn't happen?"

Indeed, these could be the central questions of Nicky Silver's new play, "Beautiful Child," now at the Vineyard Theatre, directed by Terry Kinney. And Silver does offer several possible answers: Harry's loveless and faithless marriage with Nan (Penny Fuller), the father and son's inability to communicate, and Nan's state of denial. But Silver is far less concerned with why children deviate from their parents' (and society's) moral code than with how parents react to such transgressions.

One might think that watching a play dealing with such weighty matters would be a gut-wrenching experience. And "Beautiful Child" is nothing if not provocative and disturbing. But Silver's ability to alternate wisecracking with straight-talking, monologue with dialogue, and stirring confession with careless asides works brilliantly to take the pain out of his probing.

For the most part, "Beautiful Child" is well-served by its cast. Two-time Tony Award nominee Fuller manages to talk bitchy (with lines like "you're past cliché and into archetype") without becoming a bitch. And Grizzard, who won a Tony Award for his role of Tobias in "A Delicate Balance," heroically withstands her attacks without ever resembling a hero.

Alexandra Gersten Vassilaros, who plays Harry's young secretary and mistress, Delia, delivers non sequiturs and hyperboles (("I keep eating because the sound of chewing drowns out the sobs," she wails) with the abandon of a latter-day Gracie Allen.

Kaitlin Hopkins is masterful as two different people from the family's past: Dr. Elizabeth Hilton, who was Isaac's therapist for several years, and more recently, the mother of one of Isaac's former students. Hopkins is particularly effective as Dr. Hilton, whom she comically portrays as many patients' not-so-secret image of therapists: troubled individuals trying to work out their own unresolved issues.

Pasquale is not so successful. This is partly because Silver is much less adroit at crafting sincere dialogue than he is at creating sarcastic punchlines. But it is also, to a great extent, due to Pasquale's lackluster performance, which doesn't ignite until the play is almost over.

Thanks to Richard Hoover's beautiful set - Nan and Harry's home in an affluent suburb - which includes indoors, outdoors, upstairs, downstairs and a garden bench that slides on and off stage, actors can appear and disappear with no break in the action of the play. And Obadiah Eaves' edgy and urgent music and sound effects play no small part in keeping up the suspense.

But even with technical help, the play flounders in a few spots - Pasquale's opening monologue could easily be eliminated, as well as his long, only marginally relevant mid-play monologue, and several superfluous climaxes before the play finally ends.

There are those who may see very original and ground-breaking work in Silver and Kinney's finely tuned orchestration of actors' lines alternately addressed to each other and to the audience. But this is at least as old as William Shakespeare. Some may be impressed with his allusions to the Bible and Greek tragedy. Once again there's nothing new here.

What makes "Beautiful Child" so refreshing is the way it mixes tragedy, comedy, and a bit of pure melodrama, and at the same time delightfully just misses being one more work of a gay playwright writing about dysfunctional families and misunderstood sons.

Beautiful Child has no answers, but it has something to say.[Simmons]

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